If music be … Elspeth Sandys

The Conductor
Sarah Quigley
Vintage, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869795061


Any author setting out to write a novel with a man or woman of acknowledged genius at its centre is setting herself a Herculean task. When the genius is also a Russian, living through a richly-documented period in history, the task becomes even greater. Sarah Quigley, award-winning author of four previous novels, and two collections each of short stories and poetry, has set herself just such a task in The Conductor, a novel based on the siege of Leningrad, with the composer Dimitri Shostakovich at its centre.

In choosing to write this particular story, she has taken an enormous gamble. That it pays off, at least in part, is a tribute to the depth and detail of her research, and her ability to create scenes that linger in the mind long after the last page has been turned. But it doesn’t pay off in full. What is lacking – any real sense of the composer’s inner life (though other characters fare better); any real sense of “Russian-ness” – is a sign not of Quigley’s failings as a writer, but of the near impossibility of the task she has set herself.

Part of the reason the novel fails to live up to its subject matter lies in the author’s decision to keep the eye-of-God narrative voice to a minimum, telling the story instead through the points of view of her characters. As a consequence, the burden of conveying the information needed to tell a story rich in historical detail rests with whichever character is in focus at the time. So we get chunky passages of dialogue, the purpose of which is to inform us of the progress of the war or of the political realities of the day, a technique which invariably ends up with characters telling each other things they must already know.

“I’m surprised you’re in such a hurry to leave the city that’s offered you such great opportunities,” Shostakovich says to the pianist Boris Trauberg. “After all your professional career took root in Leningrad’s Conservatoire and your future is flourishing on its soil.”

There are many such instances, as there are of scenes weighted down by research. Had Quigley chosen to leave more space for the strictly narrative voice, this reader at least might have had a more visceral response to the horrific events of the three-year long siege of Leningrad. Burdening her characters with the job of describing these events and their consequences renders the novel at times hard to read. This is not helped by the fact that the book, despite its evocative jacket, is poorly produced, the binding so tight it’s almost impossible to hold it open without the pages springing back on themselves.

That said, there is much to admire in The Conductor. Leningrad, both before and during the siege, is brilliantly evoked. In fact, as the siege, and the story, progress, the research begins to merge imperceptibly with the unfolding tragedy, so that the reader stops noticing when information is being provided:

These days the raids began at dawn and continued late into the night. The distant thudding of artillery was constant, muttering like thunder. Even standing in the bread queues was dangerous, with the frequent shelling forcing people to run for cover. Leningrad had become scarred: pockmarked squares, pitted stone walls and shattered houses ….

It was a nightmare vision – though only the most fevered imagination could have created such terrible detail. Blocks of concrete and twisted steel strewn over the ground, canvas awnings shredded like the sails of wrecked boats. And lying amid the wreckage were dozens of mutilated bodies. Legs ripped off torsos, hands ripped off arms, some still clutching their bread rations in their bloodied fingers. The worst, though, were the severed heads, staring at the sky with open eyes.

No one could read these descriptions and remain unmoved. Which makes the emotional detachment of the first two-thirds of the book all the more disappointing. Potentially emotional situations are set up, as in the violin player Nikolai Nikolayev’s agony at the presumed loss of his nine-year-old daughter Sonya, only to have the tension dissipate as other characters’ stories take centre stage. Thirty pages go by before we take up Nikolai’s story again, at which point, instead of being invited to share in his desperate search for his daughter, we are simply told about it.

Then there are the inconsistencies. Shostakovitch, the composer who cannot bear to talk about work in progress, is shown playing parts of his unfinished symphony to Karl Eliasberg, the conductor of the title. Scenes like these feel contrived, as if the author, faced with the sheer scope of the outer story, struggled to find a way to tell the inner story – the interplay of relationships; the domestic and professional fortunes of her characters. Only when the two stories merge, two-thirds of the way in, does the novel truly come alive.

As I read the novel a second time what struck me most forcibly was the non-Russian feel of the dialogue, and the inner voices of the main characters. This is partly due to Quigley’s decision to pepper her language with distinctly English figures of speech: “ready when you are”; “on with the show”; “one hurdle at a time”; “he’s your friend, right?” Then there is the occasional wrong word: “drying up like a creek-bed in summer”, a simile that would work well in a New Zealand setting, but not in Europe.

But language in itself does not account for the detached feel of the first two-thirds of this novel. It’s as if, faced with the task of conveying Russian-ness, Quigley opted for a form of expression that would deconstruct what we understand as the Russian “soul”, as revealed in Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et al, for a Western audience. Listen to the eleven-year old Shostakovitch’s thoughts about the role of music in his life, thoughts that receive no further development, despite the composer’s struggle to bring his magnificent Seventh Symphony to life: “If you’re going to become a professional nothing must get in your way: not faint-heartedness, nor politeness. Not family illness nor pity … . Neither looting nor rioting must put you off … nor political protests. These things mustn’t sway you.” Then count the number of times the composer says to himself, or tells his wife, he must work, he must be left alone, he mustn’t be disturbed. Too many to count.

Time and again I was reminded of the difference between the sublime Russian movie version of War and Peace and the British television series, in which the grandeur, the passion and the mythic selflessness of the characters was whittled down to fit the much narrower confines of a middle-class tale of love and conflict in time of war. Perhaps it’s impossible for an author writing in English to capture the elusive nature of the Russian “soul”; or, if possible, then only – as in Le Carré’s novel, Our Kind of Traitor – in cameo form.

What Quigley has attempted in The Conductor is to bring alive an entire Russian community at a point in history when only the miraculous resilience of the Russian people, their belief in themselves and in their country could save them. Ironically that story is told, but not in words – in the CD that accompanies the book. Shostakovitch’s Seventh Symphony – the mighty “Leningrad” – written during the siege transports the listener in ways only possible when in the presence of the greatest art. The rage and fear and boredom of the 900-day assault; the stunned semi-silences as the city crumbles, and the death toll mounts; the final anguished surge of sound as victory is imagined, are all there in the symphony. Having shared the composer’s traumatic journey through death and back to life, catharsis is achieved.

Can words ever do what music does? The Conductor, like many such novels before it, would seem to say: no.


Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington-based writer and reviewer. 

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